Ubiquity, thy name is James Franco. The year is not even two-thirds over, and already this self-styled 21st-century Renaissance dude is monopolizing the world of art circa 2014 at an exhausting rate.
He conquered the stage in his Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated revival of “Of Mice and Men,” which closed on July 27. He had a boutique-sized role in his production of “Palo Alto,” an episodic movie developed from his book of short stories and directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, Gia. He played an artist embroiled in a custody battle in “Third Person,” Paul Haggis’ latest multi-layered melodrama. He materialized in a flicker of a cameo in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the 2011 franchise reboot in which he starred.
Franco did not let his inner scribe go unheeded, either. He managed to squeeze in a “New York Times” op-ed piece that defended the image-shredding public antics of Shia LeBeouf — long before former star of the Transformers series was arrested in June for disrupting a Broadway performance of “Cabaret.”
Franco also summoned the strength to continue his aspirations as a film director and screenwriter, one drawn to adapting literary sources that sorely test the stamina of his fans. Last year, his attempt to do justice to William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” summoned a sympathetic review from “The New York Times” (according to A.O. Scott, the film is “certainly ambitious, but it is also admirably modest”) after opening in just two theaters last fall.
At least his follow-up, the just-released “Child of God,” has made it to 10 venues as of this past weekend. The harrowing result, based on Franco idol Cormac McCarthy’s novel, concerns a hillbilly outcast who reverts to feral form while engaging in disgusting acts of defecation, necrophilia and beyond. Critics have described the result as “brutal” and “punishing.” New York’s David Edelstein, however, was in a more indulgent mood than most (“Child of God’s” Rotten Tomatoes score stands at 36% positive) and found Franco’s grungy plunge into human depravity to be “surprisingly pretty good.”
Signature line: “This is the (expletive) American dream. This is my (expletive) dream, y’all! All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit!” – as Alien, the materialistic gangster wannabe who leads a quartet of nubile teen-girl vacationers astray in 2013’s “Spring Breakers.”
Career peaks: The native of Palo Alto, Calif., and onetime McDonald’s employee, now 36, first made his mark as the endearing high-school underachiever Daniel Desario on the short-lived 1999 cult TV series “Freaks and Geeks.” He proved his charismatic presence was no fluke with his surprisingly assured if intense handling of the title role in the 2001 TNT biopic “James Dean.”
He joined the web of supporting characters in the original “Spider-Man” trilogy (2002-07) as Peter Parker’s vengeful pal Harry Osborn. During this period, like all too many actors labeled the “next big thing,” Franco signed on for a string of forgettable projects, including the panned “Sonny” directed by Nicolas Cage and “City by the Sea” opposite Robert De Niro (both 2002). “Annapolis,” “Tristan & Isolde” and “Flyboys” all came and went quickly in 2006.
Displeased with his stagnating career, Franco made two key decisions. He re-enrolled at UCLA in 2006 at age 28 to finish his English degree after dropping out 10 years before while continuing to act. He would go on to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 2010 (as well as attending other graduate programs) and is pursuing a Ph.D. from Yale.
Franco also reunited with comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, who helped develop “Freaks and Geeks.” After playing himself with aplomb in the Apatow-directed “Knocked Up” (2007), he joined fellow “Freaks” alum Seth Rogen as a laidback pot dealer whose weed-enhanced joie de vivre was a highlight of the Apatow-produced stoner action comedy “Pineapple Express” (2008).
It didn’t take long for a revived Franco to be offered awards-caliber material such as his role as Sean Penn’s lover in 2008’s “Milk” and as a hiker trapped in a canyon in 2010’s survivalist drama “127 Hours.”
Since then, headlining such tentpole vehicles as “Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013) has not stopped him from seeking all manner of somewhat confounding extracurricular activities, from briefly joining the daytime soap opera “General Hospital” in 2009 to his much-derided stint as a disappointedly enervated Oscar co-host alongside an over-zealous Anne Hathaway in 2011.
Greatest asset: If you can get beyond all his distracting side ventures, you will notice that — besides being quite good-looking — Franco is a distinctive and dedicated actor who exudes a dorky coolness that suits him. He is less successful as a performer when he also directs the movies he appears in, but has built up a genuine rapport with audiences over the years — especially when the part emphasizes his strengths. That includes his blowhard Svengali-like Alien in “Spring Breakers.” Franco turned an outlandish, potentially unpleasant side character into a standout, even winning over a natural-born snarkster like “New Yorker” critic Anthony Lane, who wrote: “Alien is a loser, a loudmouth, and a drug dealer… He has a field of cornrows on his scalp, a mouthful of metal, and a houseful of guns. The fact that Franco is able to imbue him with a dose of sugared charm, as well as menace, is remarkable.” He collected no less than 13 nominations and citations from critics groups and others for his “Spring Breakers” achievement.
Awards attention: Won Independent Spirit awards for supporting actor in “Milk” and best actor in “127 Hours.” Oscar-nominated as best actor in “127 Hours.” Won a Golden Globe as best actor in a TV movie or a miniseries for “James Dean” and was nominated as best actor in a comedy or musical for “Pineapple Express.” Emmy-nominated for “James Dean.”
Biggest misfire: Considering the talent involved – including Oscar’s newly crowned best actress, “Black Swan’s” Natalie Portman – 2011’s medieval spoof “Your Highness” is probably Franco’s nadir. Consider this Salon critique from Andrew O’Herir: “For a few hours after having seen ‘Your Highness,’ I considered the possibility that it was the worst movie ever made.” The actor probably (and admirably) felt an obligation to support co-writer/executive producer Danny McBride, his “Pineapple Express” cohort. That “Your Highness” is the source of his lone Golden Raspberry Award nomination as worst actor probably provided little consolation.
Biggest problem: The multitasking is getting a bit old, considering that the quality of what Franco creates – conceptual art pieces, poetry, directing movies long and short, screenwriting, even an online video parody of Kayne West and Kim Kardashian’s “Bound 2” video with pal Rogen — is all over the place. It often distracts from what he is does best – act. And it appears Franco, obviously a smart guy who nonetheless can come off like Jeff Spiccoli minus the addled brain, uses social media as a sort of performance art to mess with our perception of him as a celebrity. The actor himself admitted as much recently to “The New York Times” when asked if he feels misunderstood: “I don’t feel the need to be understood … I’m making art, so it’s not like there’s any answer to what I’m doing. If there’s a bit of a mystery or just straight confusion or misreading, that’s part of it.”
Gossip fodder: Actually, the source of much of the dirt on Franco is usually himself. Last week, an interview ran in “The New York Times” that revealed he lives with his “Child of God” star, Scott Haze. Gawker immediately speculated that this was proof that Franco was gay, leading the actor to then issue the latest in a series of denials concerning his sexual orientation. When rumors swirled recently that he and Lana Del Rey were an item, he shared a photo of himself posing alongside the morose chanteuse with the caption, “Oh snap, we got married. JUST KIDDING!!!” In April, he stirred up a different, less-than-image-enhancing reaction to his flirtatious exchange of texts on Instagram with a 17-year-old girl who had seen “Of Mice and Men” and met him after the show. Franco later apologized on TV talk show “Live! With Kelly and Michael,” saying, “I’m embarrassed and I guess I’m just a model of how social media is tricky.”
Career advice: It isn’t that hard for someone as attractive and talented as Franco to draw a crowd and this exhibitionist poster child for the attention-deficit age seems particularly adept at it. But if he wants others to take his work as an actor and filmmaker seriously, considering all the research and effort he invests in getting it right, he might want to back off from the social media and treat his own career with a bit more respect. Still, he has his fans out there. New York’s Edelstein, in his review of "Child of God," thinks he has Franco figured out: “What he’s averse to is showing effort. For some reason — pride? — he wants you to think he tosses off everything (stories, novels, films, performances, important hosting gigs) as if it’s no biggie … People who are that prolific — who work quickly and jump from one thing to another — often achieve greatness, and even if Franco’s not there yet (by a long shot), there’s always tomorrow and the next day.” Also a Franco-phile: The Venice Film Festival. Last year, they nominated "Child of God" for a Golden Lion Award and this year, they are honoring the actor as an innovator in contemporary cinema.
Still, he has his fans out there. “New York’s” Edelstein, in his review of “Child of God,” thinks he has Franco figured out: “What he’s averse to is showing effort. For some reason — pride? — he wants you to think he tosses off everything (stories, novels, films, performances, important hosting gigs) as if it’s no biggie … People who are that prolific — who work quickly and jump from one thing to another — often achieve greatness, and even if Franco’s not there yet (by a long shot), there’s always tomorrow and the next day.” What’s next: Franco is showing no signs of slowing down, although most of his eclectic and often esoteric array of upcoming projects – IMDB lists more than a dozen titles featuring him as an actor for 2014 alone — involve movies. He joins Kate Hudson in the crime thriller “Good People,” opening Sept. 26. Kim Jong-un has already declared “The Interview,” a North Korea comedy that co-stars Rogen and due on Christmas Day, “an act of war.” He pairs with Jonah Hill on “True Story,” playing a real-life murderer who steals a journalist’s identity (no date yet). There are “Queen of the Desert,” a Werner Herzog biopic co-starring Nicole Kidman, as well as Wim Wenders’ “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” both awaiting release. And, naturally, he directs and stars in yet another film based on a difficult classic American novel, Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” that is expected this year. He along with Rogen and his producing partner Evan Goldberg have plans to do a movie based on Tommy Wiseau’s notorious cinematic turkey “The Room.” Meanwhile, “Bukowski,” his directorial depiction of the early days of the underclass laureate, has been delayed by copyright issues.